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Using Crowdsourcing to Protect Your Privacy

• David Talbot via

One of the key recommendations in the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's recent consumer privacy report is that the mobile industry give people simple ways to opt out of tracking, and communicate the often substantial privacy threats associated with many smart-phone apps. But that's a tall task, given the expanding universe of more than a million apps—many of which can grab personal information such as the user's location, phone number, and contacts list. Even when given a chance to review these settings in apps, most people don't bother—they just click their assent, research has shown.

Now researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Rutgers University are finding it is possible to effectively outsource this screening task and then give consumers intuitive warnings about dubious data-access settings. The prototype system, built for Android apps for now, sends the app's description—and its associated data-access requests—to human workers through Amazon's Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing service. 

Those remote workers read the settings and offer opinions—a process that takes them less than a minute and for which they are paid 12 cents apiece. Their opinions can then be aggregated into warnings.

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